Southampton kicked off their Europa League group stage campaign with an excellent win against Sparta Prague on Thursday night.
Southampton kicked off their Europa League group stage campaign with an excellent win against Sparta Prague on Thursday night. Claude Puel made seven changes from Saturday`s defeat at Arsenal, but rather than looking like a team which had been completely overhauled and lacked chemistry, this was arguably the best performance of the season so far and a comfortable win against a Czech side who we perhaps expected to put up more of a fight than they did. Here we look at five major plus points that can be taken from the game.
1) Charlie Austin getting back on the scoresheet
After his dream debut winner at Old Trafford back in January, things haven`t gone to plan for Charlie Austin. Fitness and injury issues as well as the scintillating form of Shane Long meant Austin rarely featured in the final few months of the campaign. A positive preseason followed, but he started just one of the four Premier League games so far and didn`t even come off the bench at the Emirates on Saturday. With 18 goals in an abysmal season for QPR who went on to get relegated, his talent is unquestionable. Grabbing two goals is exactly what his confidence needed. Three if you count the diving header which was ruled out for offside just seconds before his second goal which stood. Hopefully this will give Austin the opportunity to push on and get back to his best in the Premier League.
2) Cuco Martina
What a performance from this man. Cast into the wilderness when Jeremy Pied arrived, Martina`s Southampton career was all but over. Even when Pied injured his ACL ruling him out for the season, the preference was to move Martina on and sign a replacement. This never materialised and the man from Curacao finally got his chance to show Claude Puel exactly what he could do against Sparta on Thursday. Playing several passes that Pirlo or Iniesta would be proud of, Martina barely put a foot wrong all night as he dealt with everything he needed to at the back whilst providing the ammunition for Austin and Shane Long at the other end. Surely the man of the match. Any more performances like this and Cedric may have to look over his shoulder.
3) Virgil Van Dijk`s commanding performance
A captain has to be a good leader. In the absence of regular skipper Jose Fonte, there are no better candidates to take over the armband than Virgil Van Dijk. As Saints fans are getting pretty used to at this point, it was another imperious performance from the formidable Dutchman. As a result, Fraser Forster had very little to do and Saints could focus on scoring goals rather than trying not to concede them. The best example of Van Dijk`s authority came in the first few minutes of the game after Charlie Austin won the early penalty which led to the first goal. Hungry to score, Austin grabbed the ball and put it on the spot ready to take it, something which infuriated regular spot kick taker Dusan Tadic who wanted the glory himself. Van Dijk stepped in and had words with Tadic which seemed to have the desired effect as the Serbian stepped away and joined in the celebrations when Austin scored. Sparta`s strikers could not get the ball past Van Dijk all night. Goalscorers get all the plaudits but this guy could be the greatest we`ve had since a certain Matt Le Tissier wore the red and white shirt.
4) Oriol Romeu`s solid display
Victor who? Many Saints fans would say Romeu is better than Victor Wanyama who joined Tottenham in the summer. On recent evidence, it`s hard to disagree. Romeu consistently performs well with tough challenges stopping players coming through as Sparta`s Costa Nhamoinesu found to his expense late on. A major problem during the first half of last season was getting caught on the counterattack. Romeu is exactly the right player to stop that. He breaks up attacks and uses skills learnt during his time with Barcelona`s academy to send the likes of James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on their way. A key player for Saints who seems to get better every week.
5) The performance of the team as a whole
Claude Puel`s diamond formation has not been the most popular with results failing to back it up so far. In this game it worked perfectly. Let`s not get carried away, Sparta Prague were not the best team we`ve played this season, yet everything was so comfortable and not a single Saints player can be criticised for having a bad game. With three of the first choice four defenders rested, there was potential for Forster to be tested tonight. This was not the case as Martina and Van Dijk excelled, the much-maligned Maya Yoshida recovered from an early heart-in-mouth moment to put in a solid performance and Matt Targett kept it stable at left-back. Romeu provided the link between defence and attack whilst Austin wrote the headlines with his brace. The more the team play like this, the more they will grow used to it. If last season is anything to go by, a bad start isn`t necessarily a sign of things to come. A repeat performance against Swansea on Sunday could be the catalyst needed to fire the team back towards the right end of the table.